Sniffer dogs: Trained to keep you safe

Sniffer dogs: Trained to keep you safe

Their work at Montreal-Trudeau airport helps ensure the safety of thousands of people who travel through this important international hub on a daily basis. Meet Jack and Bang!

May 22, 2023

Their work is dangerous, to say the least. Jack and Bang are German Shepherds who were recruited by Montreal's Airport Patrol for their extraordinary sense of smell. Led by their dog handler Marie-Noëlle Côté, they inspect the length and breadth of Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport to sniff out explosive materials.

“Some dogs work at Customs where they are called on to detect illegal foods, high volumes of cash, and drugs. Our role, as a team, is to protect buildings, airplanes and passengers,” explains Côté, who's been working at the airport since 2009. “We inspect warehouses, security-restricted zones, and all lost baggage considered suspicious,” she adds.

Marie-Noëlle, Jack, Boom and Bang, walking in the airport.

A daily dose of teamwork
Dogs used to detect explosives, such as Jack and Bang, usually start their training at about 2 years of age. The training lasts between 8 to 12 weeks and is only offered to pre-selected canines. “Ideally, when a dog is 2 months old, we begin testing their behaviour and reactions to noise and other stimuli to see if their personality fits this line of work. We look for dogs who are able to remain calm in stressful situations.”

Whereas most of her colleagues studied police technology, Côté is a professional animal-health technician. She trained her own dogs with the assistance of the airport's lead trainer, and a lot of help from her most important work tool … a KONG. For the uninitiated, this is a chewy, bouncy rubber toy. “In a nutshell: training is grounded in play. We look for dogs who love toys and will work enthusiastically for the reward of play time!”

Marie-Noëlle Côté, accompanied by Boom, Bang and Jack, at Montréal-Trudeau International Airport.

Côté oversees all aspects of her dogs' well-being. “Jack and Bang live with me. They each have their own kennel and pen. Like all dogs, they have their unique personalities—which shine through at home and on the job. I'm really attached to them, I treat them as my own dogs and am 100% focused on their health. They come on vacation with me, we go on hikes together. They follow me everywhere I go. Or just about everywhere!”

The German Shepherds have a rotating work schedule, involving 4 or 5 days at the airport, followed by 4 or 5 days off. A typical workday will see the dogs conducting searches, patrolling and responding to security calls. “The rest of the time we train and do exercises to maintain the dogs' skills.” They're evaluated every 3 months. “If a dog fails a test, we want to know why—is it, for instance, due to a health issue? Is it training-related? As far as we can, our goal is to remedy the situation by bringing the dog's skills back to full capacity. And, if this isn't possible, it's a sign that the dog is probably ready for retirement.”

Marie-Noëlle Côté surrounded by Boom, her previous detection dog, as well as 5-year-old Jack, and Bang, who was just 2 months.

At the moment, Jack and Bang both work with Côté every day. “We split the day into 2 shifts and they share tasks,” she says. Jack is now 8 years old and received the same general training (including protection, tracking, forest searches, body searches, etc.) as a police dog. “He's in perfect shape and does a great job. Detection dogs are usually retired at about 7 years of age, but I believe that he has at least one more year of service ahead of him.” At that point, Bang will be 3-and-a-half years old and will take over full time. Jack will live out his retirement at Côté's home. “My first work dog, Boom, also retired at my place. Sadly, I had to have him put down in 2017. It's very important for me to accompany my dogs until the very end of their lives.”

Côté has been training dogs since childhood and has represented Canada in the canine agility world championships. She approaches her work with the same level of enthusiasm as her 4-legged colleagues. “It's a vocation for me. I couldn't imagine doing anything else. I love it when I'm walking with my dogs in the airport terminal and people come up to me to ask questions about our work. The fact that the presence of a dog brings people closer together … I think that's amazing!”

Marie-Noëlle Côté accompanied by Bang and Jack 7 years old, during a demonstration at a fundraiser event for the Quebec chapter of the Special Olympics.

Photos credit: Marie-Noëlle Côté/Aéroport de Montréal

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